Johannes Luebbers and the power of ten

Johannes Luebbers is an inspired leader, composer and musician. His instrument is his orchestra – a ten-piece ensemble, comprised by some of the most acclaimed musicians of the jazz, improvised and contemporary music scene. For the past decade, he has been creating new and innovative music through – and for – this dectet and now it is time for the dectet’s next step: a concert at Melbourne Recital Centre and a new recording, featuring dedicated to the ensembles history – and the particular qualities of each member. Here is what Johannes Luebbers had to say about all this.

How did you get to form the Johannes Luebbers Dectet?

JLD was formed in 2007, prompted by the opportunity to perform as part of the Jazz Windows series at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). The series was designed to showcase recent graduates and emerging artists and I was told the budget was such that I could pay 10 people. So that settled the ensemble size! This was my first gig out of uni with my own group and I wanted to have an instrumentation that was capable of sounding like a jazz group, but also had orchestral colours within it.

What is it about the dectet setting that best suits you and your music?

My musical interests have always stretched across different musical idioms, so including instruments like flute, oboe, clarinet and French horn allowed me the possibility of exploring orchestral timbres and compositional approaches that those players would be familiar with, while the presence of improvisers on trumpet, sax, trombone and a rhythm section created the sound of the jazz tradition. Ten instruments also have the potential to create reasonably large sounds, but also more intimate moments that I feel are more difficult to create in something like a big band.

How would you describe your sound to someone not familiar with it?

I’m not sure! It’s music. I’m not sure how to describe my sound, and I’m not convinced I’ve completely found it. I think others, who are outside, are perhaps better placed to describe what my music sounds like, though I don’t always agree with their assessment. If I had to describe it, I would describe the instrumentation and my interest in jazz and improvisation, but also my love of classical idioms and contemporary popular music.

But that doesn’t paint a very specific picture. For the purposes of gig listings and promotion, I sometimes get bound up in a ‘jazz meets classical’ description, which also puts me in a box with a whole lot of music I don’t really resonate with.

The music I write reflects the music I like to listen to, and I, as an audience member, am the main person I write for. The music I write then shifts a little as my listening habits change, though I’m sure the instrumentation keeps things sounding consistent – and I certainly have certain things in my bag of tricks that continue to reappear.

Our last recording was in 2011 and I think the music I was writing at that point isn’t the same as the music I’m writing now. I think I’m more interested now in trying to use the personalities in the band a little bit more, and explore improvised elements more than I might have previously.

How would you describe your approach to being a bandleader?

Being both bandleader and composer can be challenging. People are often giving up their time to play your music for little to no financial reward. There are more people in the band, so the gigs pay less, and the music is typically harder than a small group, so it takes more time to rehearse. This basically means I am at the mercy of the goodwill of those I work with so my main concern is to try and treat them with respect and make the gig an enjoyable experience, which hopefully I succeed in.

What is it the greatest challenge?

The challenges are both musical and logistical. The first problems are usually finding a time when people are free to rehearse – there is usually no time where everyone is free – and finding a venue to rehearse in; I’m lucky to have certain band members who are willing to host rehearsals. Then there are the musical challenges, of trying to finish composing music before rehearsals and then using that rehearsal time effectively to get through what needs to be done. It can be a bit stressful! But once you get on stage for the gig, it is all worth it. Hearing something you have written be brought to life by a group of exceptional performers is about the best experience you can have. It’s that joy that leads you to forget all the difficulties, which then enables you to start the process over again!

What are you going to present at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Saturday?

This Saturday we are performing the second half of my 10x10x10 project in the Salon at the Melbourne Recital Centre, presented by the Melbourne Jazz Co-Op – the first half was presented in 2017. I initiated this project last year to celebrate the 10th birthday of the ensemble. I thought ten new works would be a fitting celebration of the 10 years, and it seemed apt to make each of these a feature for one of the ten band members. Each work began with a conversation with each band member, getting some insight into the music they like to play, what they listen to and what they value in music. I then took each of these conversations and built a composition around them, hopefully reflecting the ideas that emerged with each player. The wonderful thing about this process is each work is quite different, reflecting diverse reference points, depending on the featured performer – and sometimes in ways that might not be particularly obvious to them. For example, my conversation with my bassist, Hiroki Hoshino, led to talking about free improvisation and the music of groups like Tony Malabys Tamarindo and Tarbaby, so I felt my task there was to try and build moments of free improvisation into a compositional structure that could also engage the whole ensemble. In contrast to this, the drum feature for Aaron McCoullough takes a solo he played on his own recent album as the rhythmic framework for the piece, layering a harmonic sequence over it derived from rhythm diamonds he showed me. In each piece I felt my main task was to take the threads of each conversation and weave them together into something that reflected the players in some way, while still fitting my own aesthetic. Its feels a little bit like doing a puzzle, finding ways to fit things together.

Why did you choose the crowdfunding path, in order to record the 10X10X10 project?

We are extremely fortunate to have some support from the Australia Council for the Arts and also Monash University to do this recording, so the crowdfunding is only a part of our overall budget. The current arts funding climate is pretty tough and so the strategy to have multiple revenue sources is in part an attempt to increase the likelihood of success, rather than placing all our eggs in one basket. Recording an ensemble like this is also very expensive and I’m committed to doing everything I can to pay the band properly for their time, especially given they give so much of their time whenever we do a gig. Using a crowdfunding platform like Pozible is also a wonderful opportunity to engage people who might be interested in buying the album and being a part of its creation. It allows us to both promote the recording and also give people access to the process in a way that isnt so easy when you are just selling the end product. I love to see people’s scores, or compositional sketches, as well as how things actually work in the studio. So its about community and people as well as raising the funds to complete the project.

What is your take on Australia’s jazz and improvised music scene at the moment?

I love the Australian jazz scene – there is always so much interesting music being made. Whether it’s from completely improvised groups or more notated large ensembles, there is no shortage of quality. Living in Melbourne, there are at least half a dozen gigs every week that I don’t make it to that I think would be awesome and I’m constantly wracked by guilt for missing so much! The biggest challenge for the scene is the lack of financial support for it, which is not news to anyone within it. The jazz and improvised music community typically lacks the same degree of organisation and infrastructure that more heritage art forms seem to manage. I don’t know what the answer to this is.

What is distinctive about Australian jazz?

Many people have acknowledged that Australian jazz does seem to have a unique sound, and I share this view. It doesn’t mean it’s consistent though, or that every Australian jazz musician shares it (it’s entirely possible to be Australian and play with a more American, or European, approach). People have written whole books on this topic, but the two points that strike me that emerge from the multiple discussions on the Australian sound are the lack of a binding jazz tradition and the decontextualisation of sound, experienced by early jazz practitioners in particular (described by John Whiteoak in his book Playing Ad Lib: improvisatory music in Australia 1836-1970). From my outsider perspective, growing up within the jazz tradition in America seems like it might be both a great asset, but also a burden. Engaging with this music from an Australian perspective does so without the same weight of history experienced by someone growing up in New Orleans. I understand some people might see this as a negative, but I also think it creates an environment that is open to musical mutts and cross-pollination that might not happen elsewhere. This also leads to the idea of decontextualisation – early Australian jazz players heard this music more from records than live performance, deciphering and recreating the music in a new context, in an act of cultural transplantation. That created a legacy of local heroes who have shaped the music according to our own wants and needs.

What does jazz mean to you?

Who knows? I’ve been told by an American that the music I write isn’t really jazz; it doesn’t swing and there’s not enough blues. Maybe they are right? But defining jazz is a bit of a fool’s errand. Rather than a thing, I think jazz is a space for self-expression, where composer and performer collide and past ideas are up-cycled into new gestures, both written down and spontaneously created.

As an educator, what is it the most important thing that you feel you have to communicate to the younger generation?

I feel that as an educator my main task is to generate enthusiasm and passion for the music they are pursuing. I also think it’s my job to show them that studying music is a lifetime pursuit and they need to become self contained learners in order to keep growing past their undergraduate studies. It’s easy to get caught up in tests and assessments, but I really hope they maintain a broader view of things and understand this is just the first step. We are all still learning anyone that thinks they have it completely together is usually the one with the most still to learn.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

I’ve got eight tunes instead of the one! These are things I’ve been listening to recently that I think reflect my state of mind in different ways:

  • ‘Hosh-Posh’ is one of mine, written to feature Hiroki on bass, that we are playing this week. This moves between a pretty jovial unison melody, with a couple of rhythmic glitches, and freely improvised open sections. At the end of a semester and a pretty intense period of trying to write music, I feel like this captures my feeling of manic exuberance, with things sometimes coming together and at other times going in very different directions.
  • ‘The General’ is a tune byRudresh Mahanthappa, featuring Steve Lehman. I love the rhythmic intensity and quarter-tone melodic moments that simultaneously feel so wild, but equally completely focussed and in control. Both Mahanthappa and Lehman are incredible players here.
  • ‘Sunflowers’ from Across a Field as Vast as One, by the Sam Anning Sextet. I saw this ensemble at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival earlier in the year and the performance was inspired and inspiring. The album is beautifully made.
      • ‘From Nature’s Fabric’ from Andrea Keller’s album Wave Rider is a wonderfully evocative and moving listening experience, where musical fragments seem to emerge and disappear into the fabric of the title.

        • ‘Daydreaming’ from Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool is a beautiful track that I can easily sink into and get lost in. I love the relentless, slightly swinging, 3 against 2 of the rhythm, with the melody floating effortlessly across the top.
      • ‘Flying Dream’ by John Hollenbeck was recorded on the album Shut Up and Dance with the Orchestre National De Jazz. This is a French ensemble (also a dectet in this case!) featuring some wonderful performers. This track is a rhythmic maze, nesting rhythms and divisions within each other in a way that lets you discover something new each time you hear it.
      • ‘Sonata for Horn’ by Charles Koechlin is a beautiful pastoral piece that weaves a piano accompaniment around the central horn part, unravelling the initial thematic idea.
      • Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered performed live in 1988 by Joanne Brackeen. This is another wonderfully moving performance that I keep coming back to.


Johannes Luebbers Dectet will be presented by the Melbourne Jazz Co-Op in the Salon at the Melbourne Recital Centre at 7pm on Saturday 27 October. Tickets are available:

If you would like to support Johannes Luebbers Dectet’s crowdfunding campaign you can pre-order the recording here: